May 1, 2012 - From the May, 2012 issue

Pam O’Connor on SCAG’s Regional Transportation Plan

The passage of the Southern California Association of Governments’ Regional Transportation Plan in April is a testament to the diplomatic efforts of leaders like Pam O’Connor, Councilmember with the City of Santa Monica and the immediate past president of SCAG’s Regional Council. TPR asks President O’Connor how Southern California’s Metropolitan Planning Organization was able to build consensus across six counties and nearly 200 cities. Answer: through a persistent, bottom-up approach that respected the decisions of local policy makers and planners.

Pam O'Connor

“We’re really proud of our process; our process was a real bottom-up process, a collaborative process.” -Pam O’Connor

On April 4th the Regional Council of the Southern California Association of Governments convened the 47th Annual Regional Conference and General Assembly and adopted the County’s Regional Transportation Plan. What is significant about this action? 

This cycle SCAG adopted not only the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) but also a companion Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS). AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, says California needs to reduce green house gas emissions by 2020, by about 174 million metric tons. One implementation piece came through SB 375, which aims to achieve specific greenhouse reduction targets both in 2020 and 2035 from auto and light duty trucks to land use-related policies to implement that portion of AB 32. 

The initial focus of developing the SCS was tied to the greenhouse gas emissions legislation, but what resulted was SCAG and partner cities working together and looking at transportation and land use in a more integrated fashion. This RTP/SCS is the second adopted in the state (San Diego was first). 

We’re really proud of our process; our process was a real bottom-up process, a collaborative process. 191 cities are members of SCAG in the six county area (Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties), and all the cities were consulted. All the information on general plans and population projections was provided by individual cities. There were numerous outreach meetings on the technical side, with planning staffs, as well as with the elected officials, the policy makers. We included the general public by seeking input and information about what folks wanted for our region.

There were hundreds of meetings with cities and technical staff as well as with stakeholders and the public.   SCAG’s policy committees and sub committees worked for the last few years in 30 meetings, and we had over 40 technical committee meetings. In the months before adoption of the RTP/SCS there were six major joint policy committee meetings to discuss the plans as they evolved.  So it really was a bottoms-up process, and the exciting thing was that at the General Assembly it was unanimously adopted by the SCAG Regional Council. 

You’ve been part of the City Council of Santa Monica, part of SCAG, and part of Metro for a long time. Talk about the forces that drove people to consensus. 

It had to do with bottom-up planning and outreach. We cities protect our local control of land use. The SCAG process leading to this RTP/SCS was based on existing general plans of cities and their growth forecasts; receiving that input and collaboration was critical to build consensus across so many counties and municipalities.

As SCAG staff put the draft together there were meetings with policy committees and the Regional Council at various milestone points to float-up the issues, the options, and possible directions. This dialogue helped decision makers understand the pluses and minuses, the issues, and the foundational aspects of the plan.  Each counties’ transportation commission also were important partners in the RTP/SCS process. As each cities’ general plans were respected, each county transportation commission’s plans also were used as the basis for transportation investments.. 

One thing that became clear was that we couldn’t shy away from the fact that ongoing maintenance, operations, and preservation remain major issues. As a region, need to invest in system preservation as well as in building new transit and roads. 

Review for our readers how SB 375 helps drive you in this process and consensus. What is it about that law that compels this kind of community strategy and strategic plan? 

It mandated specific targets be assigned to each region that came through a process overseen by the California Air Resources Board. The targets for the SCAG region to achieve in terms of greenhouse gas emissions are an 8 percent reduction by 2020 and a 13 percent reduction by 2035. There was the impetus to examine land use and transportation together to achieve a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, to make better land use decisions, where to focus and re-energize redevelopment in the global sense. With the adopted RTP/SCS the SCAG region will meet the target in 2020 and will exceed it in 2035 (16 percent).

You’re knowledgeable from a city, county, and a regional point of view. Share with our readers how difficult it is for Santa Monica to collaborate with Culver City or Los Angeles. How difficult is it to balance those land use discretionary actions with a multi jurisdictional plan? 

The key was the fact that everybody’s land use plans were respected. I’m not coming from Santa Monica to tell any other city or county what they should be doing. 

We formed a ‘coalition of the willing’, if you will. There are some cities (I’d say Santa Monica is one of them and I’m very proud of it) that are leaders in uniting land use and circulation elements to foster more sustainable communities. 

These communities target growth at strategic locations along transit routes. In Santa Monica there’s new investment potential in the Expo light rail, for example. That’s an opportunity. Many other cities are adopting similar strategies. Orange County prepared it’s own Sustainable Community Strategy, and most of their new development—based on their cities’ general plans—is multifamily development in strategic transit corridors and locations. So cities throughout our region are looking at this already; they have been integrating land use and transportation. Some cities may choose to do business as usual—that’s their choice. It’s a coalition of the willing, and there are a lot of willing leaders in our region. 

When Senate Pro Temp Steinberg first introduced the concept of a SB 375 while he was in the California Assembly, just for his county, he got beat up by the League of Cities and others for trying to take away the jurisdiction of localities with respect to land use. How did that evolve into 375? And where people see enough comfort that they could actually collaborate? 

Well, it took a lot of work and a lot of talking. This regional requirement was something new for all of us. As you know, SCAG is the metropolitan planning organization for the Southern California region. There continue to be federal mandates that the RTP must achieve such as meeting air conformity relative to the Clean Air Act.  When this new requirement came down from the state, the directors and staff of the MPOs across California started talking together more than they had before. They had known each other, but there was now a common issue that led to them asking, “how do we resolve this? How do we achieve the mandates of SB 375? What is a sustainable community strategy?” 


There has been a lot of shared information and shared development on this process but each MPO is taking its own approach and path.. SCAG, staff was committed to a process that was open, that was transparent, and that had appropriate timing and room for discussion. Some policy makers were going to have heartburn with some elements, but we worked together to see how we could resolve those and stitch together a whole document, a whole plan, that has more of what you like in it than not. As a region we were able to do that. 

The dollar figure included in the plan is about $524 billion for rail, bike lanes, BRT, air quality, and other central components in transportation, with about $246 billion going to public transportation. Is it the money that makes the plan possible, that gives people the comfort that this is all worth it? 

I don’t know if it’s the dollars alone, but what investment achieves.  There are two compelling images that show what has been accomplished in our region in just 20 years.   If you look at a map of the six county region in 1990 you would see not a single rail line. If you look at the same map today it shows significant rail—including  Metrolink, with lines connecting each county, and the expansion in Los Angeles County of its light rail and subway system—it’s amazing what this region has achieved in 20 years. 

One of the interesting things noted in the plan is the amount of funds that came from local governments, from our counties having sales taxes compared to the amounts received from the state and federal governments. Around 74 percent of the funding comes from local sources, and with 15 percent from the state and just 11 percent from the feds—almost three quarters comes from local sources! We are the ones planning our region; we are the ones investing in our region. 

How will the plan be implemented by SCAG, given that it has no control over land use decisions? 

While SCAG doesn’t have—and doesn’t want to have—control over local land use, SCAG can support cities in their planning efforts.  Through its Compass Blueprint program SCAG provides planning grants to cities has given planning grants to cities for the last six or seven years. These grants help update general plans and specific plans, projects such as a  transportation corridor plan, catalytic plans, revitalization plans, master plans or a neighborhood electric vehicle plan. The Compass Blueprint program is continuing to fund such projects. Right now for the 2010 call for applications there are 63 projects requesting $9.4 million, and we’re hoping to be able to fund those projects. 

SCAG also offers technical assistance to city staff. For instance there are Toolbox Tuesdays, which provides free professional training on technical issues to cities’ planning staff. This type of technical assistance programming is going to be expanded. 

This summer SCAG will be rolling out a green regions program that will focus on implementing projects and plans to promote sustainability, resource efficiency, energy, green infrastructure, and emissions reductions. It’s tied to the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental sustainability aspects of SB 375.  Also planned are grants to assist cities in updating their general plans which is a big investment of time and money.  In Santa Monica it took us six years to develop a new Land Use and Circulation Element for our General Plan. 

SCAG will also be measuring our progress on achieving the goals of out RTP/SCS. SCAG technical staff will develop performance indicators and monitoring tools to measure how well we are meeting the goals of the RTP/SCS.  And SCAG will provide training for cities staff on using these performance indicators.  SCAG will also continue to develop local profile reports for each member jurisdiction.

SCAG has been around for a long time and you just concluded your leadership as its president. If you were to make two or three reform recommendations to make SCAG even more important and vital in the region, what would they be? 

I don’t think I have any reforms in mind right now, because we’ve recently gone through a reformation. Every organization has life cycle stages.  About four years ago the Regional Council hired a new Executive Director, Hasan Ikhrata. That leadership change happened to coincide with SB 375’s mandate for a Sustainable Community Strategy to accompany the Regional Transportation Plan. 

Hasan identified things the organization could do better such as growing the membership. You grow membership by making sure that you have services that the members—cities and counties—can use such as technical assistance.  The emergence of advanced digital electronic technology allowed SCAG to create satellite offices in each county.  These teleconferencing sites allowed staff and policy makers from around the region to participate without having to commute to downtown Los Angeles.  This fostered greater participation in the RTP/SCS process. 

These changes over the last few years have really positioned SCAG to embrace this new era of collaboration. At this point I’m still basking in the positive things that have come out of this spirit of collaboration.

You mentioned early on that jurisdictions cared a great deal about the operation and maintenance of existing infrastructure. There’s been talk of a county congestion mitigation fee to pay for the infrastructure repair of local arteries that connect to the regional infrastructure. Do we need those kinds of monetary resources to rebuild, maintain, and operate what we already have? 

We need sources of funding, what the RTP suggested, and there was robust debate about what the funding mechanisms might be. It would have been easy to just say rely on the gas tax, but the gas tax is declining as we adopt more fuel-efficient vehicles—the gas tax is not sustainable. But as we worked through it, we said we’re not going to duck and hide. The Federal 1909 commission and others have made recommendations that point towards a user fee—a vehicle miles traveled fee. So rather than taking the easy way out and saying that we’re going to raise the gas tax, we say we need to start the discussion about implementing a vehicle miles traveled fee. We’re not saying to impose this regionally; it’s probably something that has to be done nationally. We have to have this discussion; otherwise we’re sticking our heads in the sand. 


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